Faking it on Facebook

So Facebook is very much turning into the Myspace of the middle classes.   I’ve set up a profile, I’ve played about a bit, I added a few personal friends and colleagues, and business friends: now what?  I’m frozen with indecision.  

You see, I don’t mind talking to people in the communal Facebook groups that spring up and then wither away, but I’m deeply uncomfortable with the friend network.    The trouble is, my real self, the self that’s tied to my real name, the one that I feel you’re supposed to communicate on Facebook, is deeply fragmented.    If I add a new networking colleague on Facebook, what do I want them to see on my profile page?  Do they need to know my relationship status? Damnit, do I actually want them to know what music I like listening to, or what books I’m really reading?

I tinker over the Interests section, and I hesitate.  Listening to Gotan Project and Regina Spektor, probably acceptable anywhere; my sekrit love for Justin Timberlake  and Rufus Wainwright might need a bit more explaining.  In other words, my profile page, my interests and my status line all require me to perform, but what persona should I perform? 

In the interests of ensuring acceptability to all my possible friends, what you currently get on my Facebook profile is the neat-and-tidy, acceptable anywhere, airbrushed version of me. 

Weirdly, it’s actually more airbrushed than this blog.  Strange.  In one way, this blog would seem far more risky, because it’s entirely public compared to a locked-off Facebook profile.  Personally, I think the difference is this that particular version (AMacleod2.1, perhaps) is one moderately coherent persona performed for a single, broad audience.   In other words, I know who I am and how to behave with this particular group, even if you are invisible and very likely infinitesimal.

So I think Facebook works well if you have one overarching persona – social you, or family you, or business networking you – operating on a single level of a hierarchy.  It becomes much more complicated if you’re looked up by your boss, your networking group, your kids’ friends’ parents, your old boyfriends, your World of Warcraft chums – oh, you get the picture.    Beyond college, our friendship networks turn into Venn diagrams, not neat lines and nodes.  The different parts of our network have different meaning and they elicit different performances from us.  The developers of social networking applications assume a level playing field. 

In trying to find a decent social network aggregator, for example, I find that the applications are good at linking up all the single versions of you-in-different-formats: your Facebook, your LinkedIn, your Twitter, your delicious; but they’re very poor at helping you keep track of your alternative personas spread across five different email addresses and about 10 platforms.  All we can hope is that the developers’ lives eventually get as complicated as mine.

Thoughts? Experiences?  Wise grizzled experience on negotiating Facebook? You can reply here or hop over to my Livejournal mirror site.

Musings on engagement and power

One of the tabs on this site is ‘Science and Health’ and that area is something I talk about less than I should.  Besides the work on online research and websites which has taken up a lot of my time recently, I’m involved with what’s usually termed ‘public engagement’. 

I’ve been going through a phase of explaining myself to people, and I notice that the researchers and the web people trip up over ‘public engagement.’  Well, in part it is nice to work across a range of different areas rather than specialising to death, but in addition I would argue that it’s all part of the same thing.   Public engagement is about scientific establishments, or other institutions, understanding their audiences better in order to have more useful conversations.  That’s pretty close to communication research, really.

Engagement is often seen as a euphemism for persuasion, as in ‘engaging with our customers’ and ‘engaging our critics’.   These days, those doing the engaging, whether they are government, medics, scientists or large corporations, like to maintain that it is all about meeting in the middle.  I’m not so sure that it is, or even can be.  A lot of the time it’s much like clambering down from the top of a mountain, emerging from the mists to talk to a group of filthy villagers sitting round a camp fire with their yaks, having a bit of a chat, and then hiking back up the mountain to rejoin the mystics in orange robes sitting around their very clean campfire.

Actually, market research is like that a lot.

‘The villagers don’t like the plans for the new yak paths!’

‘Hrrumph. Perhaps you talked to the wrong villagers.  Let us find a different band of filthy villagers, and see what they say.’

I think we would all like to write out the elite part of this particular attempt at engagement.  Engagement in science, for example, is not longer described as ‘public understanding of science’  in order to convey the more democratic, persuasion-free model of engagement, yet there are real limits to relativism.  In reality, one group has power or knowledge or structures that the other party doesn’t.   So to my mind, there is a constant tension between the ideals of engagement and the lived reality of, say, government and accepted scientific knowledge.  

In the case of medicine, you might understand your patients’ trust in complementary therapy, but want to persuade more of them to have their children vaccinated.   In the case of law, you might understand the victims’ strong need for justice and retribution, but you might not want to support their demands for long prison sentences. 

Don’t get me wrong: I love engagement, and I adore it when the filthy villagers throw the monks’ tools back in their faces, because we all need powerful people to understand our reality far better than they do, but there is a genuine power disparity here that needs acknowledging.